Published: 05:00, 20 January 2022
The sale of the world's oldest cast iron pier to a private company will lead to "a monopoly" and force out other business, some fear.
But the concerns have been dismissed by Gravesham council, which is selling off Gravesend Town Pier and pontoon to river boat firm Uber Boat by Thames Clippers, and says safeguards have been written into the contract.
The proposed new owners want to introduce a high-speed commuter river link from Gravesend to London – extending its operation from the capital into Kent for the first time.
The sale plans were approved by the authority's Labour cabinet members earlier this month leading opposition leader Cllr Jordan Meade (Con) to call-in the decision to a scrutiny committee last week.
Tory members called on the decision to be referred back to the cabinet for further consideration over a range of concerns including continued public access, preserving the heritage of the historic listed pier, mooring rights and safeguarding the Gravesend to Tilbury ferry service.
But the motion was defeated after five Labour members voted against the four Conservatives in favour.
Cllr Meade said it was "disappointing" the debate was lost adding while he welcomed a fast river link to London, he wanted to ensure "the deal is right for the residents of our town".
He added: "The Town Pier is the crown jewel of our riverside heritage assets and we cannot afford to get this wrong.
"As things stand, I remain unconvinced the council has done adequate due diligence, that the taxpayer is getting value for money and that public access has been adequately safeguarded.
"I have further unanswered concerns over what safeguards are in place when it comes to the future maintenance of our pier and as councillors cautioned at scrutiny, the proposed deal provides no guarantee that we will get a rapid river service from Gravesend.
"If the sale proceeds, then Thames Clipper must urgently demonstrate to the community how they will be good custodians of the world’s oldest cast iron pier and how they plan to keep moorings open for historic ships, sailing barges and other nautical uses."
Some businesses on the river which use the pier have also raised concerns about the sale to Thames Clippers, fearing they will dominate the market and close out competition from using the pier for sight-seeing and ferry services.
They worry with the company taking over ownership of the pier, it will look to operate solely from the adjoining pontoon and take all the revenue by excluding other companies.
Richard Bain, managing director of JetStream Tours which runs the Tilbury ferry route, says he's extremely concerned about future commercial operations under the new owners amid the route's contract with Kent County Council due for renewal at the end of this year.
He claimed operators at other piers owned and managed by Thames Clippers in London are being charged rates to berth which make it "unviable" for other companies to run services with Thames Clippers having exclusive access to the docks along the river.
KentOnline understands an exclusivity deal was signed between the council and Thames Clippers in 2018 to use the pier for services westbound to London.
The deal does not include provision for the operation eastwards – towards Tilbury and Southend – but KentOnline understands it will require extra investment to increase capacity.
Mr Bain said he was concerned the situation is paving the way for "a monopoly" to emerge on the river.
He added: "Gravesend is going to lose its heritage site and visiting yachts from France and Holland and heritage barges. It's not just all about the ferry.
"We're going to lose that berthing point and there's a lot of uncertainty whether private individuals are going to be able to continue to use it.
"From councillors I've spoken to there doesn't seem to be any reassurances.
"By going back into private ownership it's going to be disastrous."
Mr Bain added the sale not being put out to tender for other interested parties to bid was a major concern for him.
There have been suggestions a charitable trust made up of various operators in the town, including Thames Clippers, could come together and run the pier to keep it in public ownership and register it as an Asset of Community Value – a mechanism often used by communities attempting to save village pubs from redevelopment.
Mr Bain said a trust ownership model had been extremely successful in Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey and had "brought the town back".
But a council spokesman said extensive discussions and clauses in the contract with Thames Clippers have been put in place to safeguard the concerns raised.
"Thames Clippers owns five piers/pontoons and operates from another 18 and has their own in-house facilities team," the spokesman said. "As such they are well placed to maintain Town Pier and pontoon.
"In respect of ensuring Thames Clippers undertake required repairs and maintenance, Historic England has responsibility for overseeing the condition of listed buildings and so that falls to them, just as it does now while the pier is in council ownership."
Gravesham council bought the pier in 2000 when it was in a dilapidated and unusable state and the authority has used public funding and grants to bring it back into use.
The council has outlined several safeguards are being put into the contract with Thames Clippers to ensure the continuation of the Gravesend to Tilbury ferry route, public access to the end of the pier and a buy-back option with the council granted first refusal within the first five years of the transfer.
The spokesman added: "It’s worth noting that with regards to the pontoon, the council has had to employ consultants to advise on its repairs and maintenance as we do not have the necessary expertise in house, resulting in a cost to the council taxpayer. Thames Clippers has that expertise in house.
'By going back into private ownership it's going to be disastrous...'
"There is no requirement for us to put the sale of an asset out to tender. There is a requirement to achieve best value.
"To that end, we obtained an independent valuation of Town Pier and pontoon and the agreed sale price is supported by that valuation.
"The council’s intention has been to sell Town Pier to a recognised river operator, and we had discussions with another interested party before the approach from Thames Clippers.
"Another long-standing ambition of the council – which is encompassed in our Local Plan - is to support the establishment of rapid river links to London and Thames Clippers is best placed to establish those links, so the sale meets both of the council’s stated ambitions."
The council says owning the pier and pontoon has cost the taxpayer £588,000 in the last five years while only generating £40,000 income which it says continued ownership would "only create further financial pressures on our finances".
Geoff Symonds, chief operating officer of Uber Boat by Thames Clippers, said: "It’s important to us to maintain their heritage and that the investment is for the longer term, ensuring the local communities can benefit from the river transport link that they provide.
"At Gravesend we would like to work with all river users to maximise the pier use..."
"We are delighted that Gravesham council has agreed to entrust Town Pier and pontoon with us. We appreciate its significance to the local community and are pleased to be investing in that community.
"It has long been our goal to expand the River Bus network further east and help support the growth of the Thames Estuary; and the acquisition of Gravesend Pier would enable us to do this. This expansion has already started, with the select central London sailings from Gravesend and Tilbury in 2021 and with Barking Riverside Pier due to open in the spring.
"Whilst we establish the long-term service from Gravesend, we plan to operate more leisure sailings in the interim, further enabling as many residents as possible to enjoy the benefits of travelling by river.
"The Gravesend to Tilbury Ferry will continue as normal with no changes to its access arrangements which is a condition of the sale.
"At our own river bus piers we accommodate charter vessels at market rate which align with Transport for London pier fees (London River Services) but on the basis that they do not inhibit or delay the scheduled services.
"At Gravesend we would like to work with all river users to maximise the pier use.
"It is our understanding that the only current regular service is the Gravesend-Tilbury Ferry which will have unfettered access like at present and is a condition of the pier sale.
"This is supplemented by ad-hoc charter vessels or annual events which we propose would continue and manage like we have done successfully at our other piers."
Responding to questions about the entertainment facilities previously occupied as a restaurant, Mr Symonds said: "It is still very early in terms of the sale process and indeed planning. We have yet to fully assess the current permitted uses at the pier but we certainly wish to bring the space back to life and provide an amenity for the local community once more."